It started out as a birthday present. The soprano Barbara Hannigan, asked to sing at a surprise party for the writer and critic Paul Griffiths, moved toward bigger plans.
When the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen was smitten by the idea of scoring Griffiths’ novella let me tell you, Hannigan dared to suggest a commission to the Berlin Philharmonic. Before she knew it, they had accepted.
The soprano, who has sung some 80 premieres, feels such a strong sense of responsibility that she compares the piece to a baby: ‘Don’t drop it,’ she wants to say. ‘Keep it clothed and nourished.’
While many world premieres fall into oblivion, she has ensured subsequent performances with the Gothenburg Symphony, Rotterdam Philharmonic and the City of Birmingham Symphony this season; other orchestras have plans to programme the work further down the line.
In let me tell you, Griffiths rearranges the vocabulary allotted to Ophelia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet into a first-person narrative. ‘I know I can do this,’ says the young noblewoman of Denmark in the poem chosen to open Abrahamsen’s setting for soprano and orchestra. ‘I have the powers: I take them here.’
Hannigan points out that while Ophelia is not a very developed character in the original play, Griffiths allows her to gather the collective experience of over half a millennium. ‘She’s had all this time to think about what happened: if she really did go mad; what effect Hamlet had on her; why she was so fragile. Of course what we receive is the perspective of history and time; of women in history and time.’
She finds Abrahmsen’s score to be an intuitive realization of Ophelia’s story. ‘Somehow he got to the heart of it without being pathetic,’ she says. ‘He was able wrap incredible layers of music around the text without being indulgent or sentimental or cold.’
This being the composer’s first sung work, Hannigan had given him a four hour session in vocal music from the Renaissance to 12-tone. ‘I think that’s why the writing doesn’t feel like modern music to me,’ she says. ‘I feel like it has always been there. Even though the intervals and rhythms might be difficult, the lyricism has a timeless quality.’
The soprano will sing the score from memory, having internalised highly complex compound meters by writing them over and over again in a notebook. ‘I have to negotiate the mathematical side of getting this score into my brain and the emotional side, which will be free and spontaneous – hopefully as if I were making it up right at that very moment.’
The piece is divided into three parts, dedicated to past, present and future. Sparse, ethereal orchestration sets the stage for Ophelia in the opening movement until a burst of dark brass foreshadows her fate. Abrahamsen first exploits the full orchestra in the middle section, leading into what Hannigan describes as the ‘dies irae’ of the piece: ‘You have sun-blasted me, and turned me to light,’ says Ophelia. ‘You have made me like glass.’
The soprano, who in her score jotted down the words ‘breakable, transparent, irreparable, splintered, hard, shard, dangerous,’ imagines herself at this moment as a pair of tubular bells which someone else is playing. ‘To hear Ophelia say this is heart-breaking,’ she says. ‘If you make someone your sun, at some point they are going to burn you.’
In the final scene, Ophelia walks out into a snowfall, unable to follow each flake – a symbolic recreation of the implied suicide in the original play. For Hannigan, the premiere of the score will become a kind of ceremony. ‘Ophelia will retell her story on December 20, 2013 at the Berlin Philharmonie,’ she says. ‘With the help of me and the musicians, and the audience as witness.’
And when that premiere came around, the soprano, in a flowing, shell-pink gown, struck a moving balance between thespian poise and focused musicianship as she made her way through Abrahamsen’s eerie score. Ophelia often stammers as if struggling to find the words, her vocal lines interlocking into intricate rhythms with the orchestra. In the climatic second part, the instrumental frenzy seems to recreate her insanity, or mock her fragile state.
Abrahamsen’s grounding of the piece in floating, high-pitched textures creates a realm trapped somewhere between heaven and earth. Ophelia descends briefly before returning to stillness or, perhaps, peace as she enters the vast snowfield of sustained strings and rustling percussion in the final poem. Andris Nelsons coaxed impressive line from the orchestra while giving a clear pulse with his baton.
Opening the programme was Peteris Vasks’ Cantabile for strings, a neo-tonal lament whose atmospheric textures created an appropriate bridge into let me tell you. Less dramaturgically consistent was the evening’s close with Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Although Nelsons created great mystery in sensuous string phrasing and diaphanous wind textures, the music’s heroic bombast left the dreamy ambiguity of Ophelia’s fate far behind.